Rutte seals NATO top job after lone rival drops out

AFP: Outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Thursday clinched the race to become the next head of NATO at a pivotal time for the alliance after sole challenger Romanian President Klaus Iohannis pulled out.

The veteran politician, 57, is expected to be formally named by NATO's 32 nations in coming days and should take over when current chief Jens Stoltenberg's term ends on October 1.

Rutte will come in at a perilous moment for the Western alliance as Russia's war in Ukraine drags on and Donald Trump battles to reclaim the US presidency in November.

After staking a claim for the NATO post following the collapse of his coalition, staunch Ukraine backer Rutte quickly won the support of the United States, Britain, France and Germany.

But he had to use all the diplomatic skills gleaned during almost 14 years in charge of the Netherlands to win over hold-outs led by Turkey and Hungary.

Rutte overcame Turkish reticence with an April visit to Istanbul, before finally sealing a deal with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban at a European Union summit this week.

That left the last sticking point as Iohannis, whose surprise bid had ruffled feathers among allies banking on a smooth appointment for Rutte ahead of a NATO summit in Washington next month.

Romania's security council on Thursday announced Iohannis had formally withdrawn and that the country backed Rutte.

NATO diplomats and officials said a meeting of alliance ambassadors would likely be convened next week to approve Rutte's appointment.

"It's taken a really long time," quipped Rutte to public broadcaster NOS. "It's a complicated process, but it seems to be going well."

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